The Mexican filmmaker opens up about how his attempts to put "lucid nightmares" from his youth (and his father's kidnapping) behind him gave way to awards season frontrunner 'The Shape of Water.'
As a young child lying on a little mattress at the foot of his grandmother's bed in Guadalajara, Mexico — abandoned to her care as he so often was by his hardworking and hard-traveling parents — Guillermo del Toro experienced the first of what he calls his "lucid nightmares." He had just watched an episode of The Outer Limits, starring Warren Oates as a mutant with a bald head and giant eyes, and that image merged in his mind with the iconography of the Roman Catholic church, stamped on his soul by his deeply religious grandmother.
"I would wake up in the dream as if it was in my room, and I would literally see creatures," recalls the filmmaker. "There was no difference between that and reality. In my grandmother's house, every now and then, the church bells nearby would chime late, either at midnight or 10 p.m. I would hear the bells going ding-dong, ding-dong, and there was a big armoire in my room, and out would come a hand and the face of a goat and the leg of a goat. It was horrible, so horrible."
The 53-year-old filmmaker has returned repeatedly to the land of these dreams in such movies as 1993's Cronos, 2004's Hellboy and 2006's Oscar-nominated Pan's Labyrinth — but perhaps never so forcefully as in his upcoming picture for Fox Searchlight, The Shape of Water, the story of a mute janitor who falls in love with a humanoid sea-creature, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and will hit theaters Dec. 8. Del Toro sees this as his most adult film yet, the first in which he has broken free of children, or not taken a child's point of view. "I have made nine movies, and all of them are adult rephrasings of my childhood," he muses. "I wondered, 'Can I make a movie that speaks about me as an adult?' " And yet Shape, more than ever, is yoked to the violent dreamscape of his youth, a place where the real and the unreal intermingled.
Look at this film and at del Toro's other work, and it's hard to believe he's ever altogether left his childhood behind. Its heightened images and emotions are visible in his extensive notebooks (he always has one with him, in which he scribbles thoughts and sketches in sepia ink), replete with transmogrified souls, grotesque plants and hallucinatory visions that seem to have leaked, unfiltered, from a child's subconscious. They're present in the two houses in Ventura County that he's turned into modern-day cabinets of curiosities, each packed with thousands of unusual artifacts (surreal paintings, glass eyeballs, metallic creatures, a full-size Frankenstein creature) that he's collected over decades, all the more shocking for being hidden behind suburban walls.
Del Toro doesn't live in these homes — he occupies a presumably more practical residence just a short distance away — but as he wanders from room to room, showing this visitor his treasures on a crisp October morning, it's clear this is where his heart belongs, that his connection to the objects and obsessions of his childhood still lingers.
"There's a moment late in your life when you get the sense that [you can survive as an adult]," he reflects. "But the pain still exists. You have the same questions you had when you were a kid: What are we doing here? Am I fulfilling what I'm meant to fulfill?"
"For the most part, there is a relationship that was very gentle," he says, easing himself into a well-worn couch, surrounded by bibelots and bric-a-brac, in a room that never seems to have seen the light of day. Here in Bleak House (as he calls the two connected houses that are his private museum), clad in black, del Toro all but disappears in the darkness until all that stands out are his eyes, looming large behind powerful spectacles. "My grandmother would love to hear me talk about my plans," he adds. "I was already into monsters, ever since I was in the crib, so one of the rooms in her house had a sign that said 'Monster Club, Do Not Trespass,' and it had a vampire bat that I had cut out of artificial fur." But there was a darker side to del Toro's upbringing. "She exorcised me a couple of times — she threw holy water at me," he says. "And I would laugh because it was ridiculous."
It was less funny when Josefina placed jagged metal bottle caps inside his shoes, "upside down, so that I would bleed to mortify the flesh to pay for purgatory," he remembers. "My mother discovered them and said, 'Don't do that again.' But there were many bottle caps, metaphorically, that were put in there. I formed a bond with her that was full of guilt, because she explained to me things like original sin, and that was really difficult for me to understand. The notion of sin, the notion of damnation — there is a lot of pain in the Catholic religion in Mexico; there is a lot of guilt."
Del Toro only let go of that pain and guilt much later, when he learned to forgive his grandmother, and thereby came to love her before she died when he was in his late teens. "She instilled a lot of the fears that broke me," he says. Broke him? "There is a Japanese aesthetic and philosophical belief called kintsugi," he continues, "which is broken pottery that you put back together with gold. I think kintsugi is the key to being yourself. You don't want to be repaired; you just want to be aware that there is gold in your fractures. And as a kid, she fractured that part of me."
The fractured kid was 6 years old when he saw his first monster movie, 1931's Frankenstein, and felt an overwhelming sense of identification with the damaged creature. In his unformed and unfettered imagination, the monster merged with his grandmother's notion of Christ. "I swear the moment Boris Karloff crosses the threshold and his eyes are in ecstasy — they are looking up like [the sculpture of] St. Teresa by Bernini — it was like Paul on the road to Damascus. I was struck," he recalls. "I said, 'This is the guy that is going to give his life for my sins. This is the one that the Bible speaks of.' I said, 'This is the Messiah that has been promised.' The way martyrdom is presented in the Bible is really hard to decipher when you are a kid, but there was a state of grace to the way Boris played the Creature. And I thought, 'He is not going to last.' I said, 'Such purity cannot last in the world of men.' And sure enough, it did not."
Del Toro must have thought the same of himself. A thin, almost albino boy, he was frequently bullied in his early years. "I was white-blond when I was a kid," he notes." I had a lot of fistfights and I couldn't hold my own, because I was so thin. So I started putting on weight, and I got better at fighting, and I kept [putting on] weight." He also became obsessed with illness and calls himself the world's youngest hypochondriac, a result of reading his father's health encyclopedia from cover to cover. (That, along with his father's art encyclopedia, dominated his reading.) "I could tell I had terminal cancer at age 7," he says. "I could tell I had trichinosis, I could tell I had cirrhosis, I could tell I had septicemia. And I could very articulately go to my mother and say, 'I'm dying.' "
His mother dismissed such fears even as his grandmother stoked them by reminding him of her own mortality. Each night, when they spoke by phone, she would ring off with the words: "Good night. I don't know if I'll wake up tomorrow." The boy would toss and turn until daybreak, when he'd call her, relieved to hear: "I made it."
Del Toro became more popular as he grew older ("I was really very funny," he says. "I painted, I sang"), but his weight turned into an issue and remains so to this day, perhaps because it's closely connected to self-defense. "I started gaining weight in third grade, so from third grade on, at least, I held my own," he explains. Did the weight bother him? "Yes. I was thinking, 'I don't follow normal patterns.' I was very concerned with normalcy."
His parents were equally concerned. When they saw their son's grades rise and plummet without apparent logic, they decided he should see a therapist; and so, at 13 years old, Guillermo started counseling, at an age and in a place where it was anything but common. His grades improved, but whether the therapy — which he's continued at various times since — helped solve his deepest issues, he can't say. "I don't know," he shrugs, and laughs. "If we could resolve it, now I would be 100 pounds less."
After high school, del Toro studied film in Guadalajara and spent several years working on special effects makeup through his own company, Necropia, before cobbling together $2 million (including $500,000 in bankers' fees) to shoot his first feature, Cronos, which in turn led to his American debut, 1997's Mimic. And then, just as his career was skyrocketing, his personal life was plunged into turmoil when his father was kidnapped.
Del Toro is reluctant to talk about the harrowing event, partly for fear of reopening an old wound, partly out of respect for his father's privacy. "We received the phone call right away and were instructed not to contact the police," he recalls. "My older brother called me and said, 'They took him,' and he didn't need to explain. I knew what he meant. Then I called Jim Cameron, who was a good friend, has been a good friend for 25 years. I called him and said, 'What do I do?' Because I thought Jim was a very wise person."
Cameron (del Toro had met the Terminator filmmaker in 1992 at a July 4 barbecue) hired a professional negotiator and paid the $250,000 fee. "The [negotiator] came in and said, 'You'll do what I tell you to do. You'll go at it the way I tell you to go at it,' " says del Toro. "And then we took turns dealing with the [kidnappers] on the phone. My older brother started, my younger brother took over, and then I finished. I was the last guy in charge." Why the rotation? "Because it gets really bad. It gets really, really, really bad. Those are very antagonistic phone calls. And there is a point where you cannot talk to them anymore, because the language becomes very charged."
Weeks after the kidnapping, with a ransom paid (del Toro won't say how much), Federico was freed. But the psychological effects of this real-life horror story persisted. That year, the entire family left their native land and moved to the U.S., with del Toro settling first in Texas and later Los Angeles. Since then, he's been cautious not to reveal more than necessary; he maintains a curtain over his family's private lives and won't discuss his wife or two daughters, ages 16 and 21.
"It was very difficult," he says of the move to the U.S., not because of language problems (he speaks English fluently and with a striking vocabulary), but "because I did it without [financial] assistance. I did it with whatever money I had left from doing Mimic, because the money I'd made, I used to pay a quarter of a million dollars that I owed on Cronos." Little by little he rebuilt, going from Mimic to 2001's The Devil's Backbone to 2002's Blade II and then Hellboy, reinventing himself as a bilingual filmmaker, one of the trio now known as the "three amigos," along with his friends Alejandro G. Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron.
Two decades have passed since del Toro relocated to America, and in the process he has pulled off an extraordinary act of prestidigitation, remaining the most personal of filmmakers even as he has ventured into the most commercial of territory. For him, there's little that separates the Grand Guignol of Hellboy (which earned $99 million worldwide) from the more obviously art house Pan's Labyrinth (which made $83 million) — about a young girl who discovers a secret world with a mysterious creature, just like the one that crawled out of his childhood armoire.
Since Pan, del Toro has delved into big-budget territory with 2013's Pacific Rim and period horror with 2015's Crimson Peak; but with Shape he's returned to personal work, to a story that brings him back to another movie he saw in his most formative years, 1954's The Creature From the Black Lagoon.
Cuaron is not alone in regarding it among his friend's best work, and isn't surprised that del Toro has reached this point in his career. He jokes that he was "jealous" of the scope of del Toro's talent when they first met in their 20s. Back then, he was struck by del Toro's limpid candor — he bluntly dismissed one of Cuaron's projects as derivative of Stephen King. Since then, del Toro's warmth, honesty and humor have bound him to Cuaron. "Guillermo's the most mischievous human being I've ever known," he says. "But at the same time he's highly sensitive. He can share the most intimate things. He's not afraid of fragility."
Sitting with del Toro in his cavernous room, it's his innocence that's most striking. Surrounded as he is by his most precious talismans — including his grandmother's tiny cameo brooch, kept in a glass-fronted cupboard; and a full-sized boy's body, arms akimbo, veins visible in uncanny detail (a reproduction of the Half Boy character from 1932's Freaks) — one wonders if he'll ever abandon the landscape of his youth, the beauty and terror of his earliest years.
He says he has begun to do so for the first time, not just in Shape, but in his private life; he recently bade a temporary goodbye to many of his possessions, allowing them to appear in a LACMA exhibition (which saw more than 25,000 visitors in its first two weeks) and even go on tour. "I want [other] people to enjoy them," he says.
But it's hard to think of him wholly severing his links to the past, to the universe real and imagined that he has recaptured in these suburban homes. His visions seem too grand to be contained on a mere screen; rather, they spill onto everything he touches. As with Walt Disney, one suspects, the outside world isn't enough; he needs to make a world of his own, one peopled with the creations of his imagination and all that goes with them, an empire of the misshapen and misbegotten.
Shortly before his grandmother died, he remembers, "I showed her some of the makeup effects that I was doing, improvisation for my movies. And she cried and said, 'Why couldn't you ever do nice things? Why were you always creating these horrible things?' And I said, 'They are beautiful to me.' "
This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.